The Clare Spark Blog

September 8, 2012

What is a materialist?

What is a materialist? This question cannot be answered without asking what is an organic conservative.  See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, in which I give examples taken from my book on the Melville Revival. That essay takes patience and time, so I will attempt a more accessible account below.

This blog focuses entirely on what we mean by materialists and materialism, since the meanings of this term have proliferated, and are frequently deployed in partisan propaganda, but rarely with a definition of what the term signifies.

As a term of abuse, materialism refers to the excessive consumption promoted by free market capitalism, often viewed as a self-serving innovation of “the International Jew.” Leftists, whether of the Democratic Party or of the hard Left, believe that the desire for Things has taken precedence over Love thy Neighbor, and produced a loathsome narcissism, and worse, “bourgeoisifying” what should have been a revolutionary working class. Such love of material comfort, it is alleged, has only served to place the “rootless” individual into the iron cage of materialism (Max Weber), for such a one has emptied herself of “spirituality”.

Minimalist architecture and design addressed the froufrou of excessive ornamentation with a return to simplicity, even austerity. And neoclassical austerity is the preferred style of communism and related ideologies interested in high quality mass production that would re-spiritualize the irreligious urban masses. (One branch of feminist art addressed such austerity as typical of the male sensibility, and produced in reaction, pattern painting. Some of its leading artists have been Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, notwithstanding their liberal or leftist sympathies. I could have added Judy Chicago to this group, in her rehabilitation of painting on china or embroidery, once considered to be crafts practiced by women, and demeaned accordingly.)

Joyce Kozloff image

Materialism as empiricism, as a route to knowledge known to some Greek philosophers, was mostly a product of the Reformation and then the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, but even a materialist like Hobbes warned against the untrammeled search for truth as a dangerous “passion.” (Catholic scholars have pointed out that much science was developed by medieval monks, and they are right.)

The German Enlightenment of the 18th century was reactionary as it undermined “materialism” with its mystical notion of national character and Zeitgeist or “the spirit of the age.” Society was held together by mystical bonds of blood and soil, but Herder, the chief proponent of “national character” arranged his different societies in a hierarchy that favored Germans and ancient Greeks. See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.

To conclude this short blog, a materialist historian looks at the evidence of this world, although with a skeptical eye, for we understand that we are capable of misreading primary sources, and that primary source materials are themselves sometimes wrong or distorted by diarists, the records of courts, etc. (Or primary source materials may be hidden by secretive tyrants, an ongoing problem for historians and the better journalists.) We also tend to look to similar material interests as a route to social solidarity, not to mystical bonds that are posited by the organic conservatives (e.g. populists/progressives asserting “the public interest” over the ever-selfish “individual”). And the latter mystics are found all over the political spectrum.  To see “things as they are” is no easy matter, and beware of those experts who abuse “evidence” to please a client or an institution or a political party. For more on this point, see (https://clarespark.com/2013/12/13/culture-wars-religion-and-the-neurotic-historian/.)

Note: My use of the Bauhaus and its neoclassical underpinnings (mystical) are derived from Barbara Haskell’s essay in the catalog to the recent exhibition of Lyonel Feininger’s career in Germany and America. See  http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/LyonelFeininger. Haskell explains that the Bauhaus (Feininger was a member) attempted to revive the medieval unity of arts and crafts, i.e., as a restoration of spirituality. This was a powerful insight for me.

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January 7, 2012

Feminism and its publicists

Naomi Wolf, 2008

{See a related blog https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/, retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke.]

Naomi Wolf is purported to be the founder of “third wave feminism” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Wolf. I have no idea what that means. I have tried to read The Beauty Myth (William Morrow, 1991), an international best seller. It is heavily derivative of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique in that Wolf is clearly aiming her arrows at domesticity, a situation that makes many daughters of professional parents uncomfortable, for they have competed with men to enter the best private and public schools, then perhaps Ivy League or Seven Sister colleges, only to find themselves saddled with the same job that lower-class women perform as wives and mothers. Indeed, when I married in 1959 (after attending two Ivy League schools) and looked around at the wives of my  husband’s lawyer friends or the wives of other graduates of Harvard Law, I shook my head and wondered how elite women would adjust to lives as consumers, thrown into the same pot as the women thought to have been left behind in the great race of life.

I knew very little about feminism until the late 1960s, when everyone was reading Kate Millett or Germaine Greer or Phyllis Chesler. I thought that young mothers who were fleeing their children were unnatural, and remember saying that to our friends. At that time, my three children were very young, and I felt that the duties of marriage and child-rearing were exhausting. I had not yet read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and have often thought that had I read her work, or even that of Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, that I would have been a stronger woman, more ambitious, and less docile in my marriage. But having chosen motherhood and marriage in my early 20s, I didn’t think it was a demeaning or unchallenging set of roles; quite the contrary. And now that I have become acquainted with attachment theory (as promoted by psychologists Bowlby, Mahler, and Winnicott), as well as discoveries regarding the crucial first five years in laying down brain connections that would affect intellectual performance throughout the life span, I am more committed than ever to the significance of parenting, with special attention to the full range of family relationships as they affect marriage and child development.

But the intellectual, emotional, and moral challenge of motherhood was not the focus of either second wave feminism or the Naomi Wolf variant (which seems to be no more than the ridiculous statement that the beauty myth is a backlash against the 1960s-70s feminist movement). I remember one famous artist’s wife handing out leaflets telling women that housework (and baby-tending?) was demeaning. While teaching part time at California Institute of the Arts, I recall the Feminist Art program run by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. One of their students came into my office, weeping, because a rule had been laid down that women artists could not represent phalluses or their symbolic representations; females did vaginas and focused on male cruelty, a sadism that was literally binding them to the home, a home that was a prison. Their creation Womanhouse was very clever and creative in expressing this theme, for instance the fried eggs that climbed up and down the walls of the kitchen (meant to represent breasts) and the bedroom that was devoted to makeup as imperative and mask. I myself did a slide show on “sex and violence in the art and photography of women artists and photographers,” and got large audiences for this demonstration of female rage, mockery of males, and the celebration of the female orgasm or other bodily functions (i.e., menstruation). (This was in the 1970s.)

To return to Naomi Wolf’s first book, a book that was as repetitious and as hard to read as Friedan’s earlier one, the feminists of the second wave did not respond to Betty Friedan as much as they responded to their treatment by New Left males, whose bohemianism and womanizing needs no elaboration here. Educated antiwar women had been consigned, as usual, to demeaning tasks, and to sexual promiscuity. (This was before the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s). Here was the source of second wave feminism, and women in the movement soon either subordinated their feminism to left-wing politics (especially anti-imperialism) in general, or took to writing about the oppression of women, attaining notoriety and fame in the process (for example Gloria Steinem).

The overriding theoretical construct was the term “patriarchy.” That implied, as both Wolf and Judy Chicago maintained in The Dinner Party, that all men victimized all women from time out of mind. With gender oppression the mighty variable, it was logical that separate Women’s Studies departments be established to accommodate growing female demands to be written back into history. Indeed, when I took Katherine Kish Sklar’s course on 19th century female reformers during my doctorate preparation at UCLA in the early 1980s, I was called on the carpet for separating working class women from upper-class women, and for objecting to an influential article Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of Domesticity.” [Background: we did learn in Sklar’s course that there was a big debate among feminists as to whether the status of women changed after men left the home to participate in industrial society. When women’s labor was visible to men, did they enjoy higher status? The point I am making is that some feminists are motivated by status politics and fame, and seem uninterested in the material condition of less privileged females, unless these are addressed within the protocols of the Democratic Party. I.e., these feminists were treating the woman question as a problem of caste, whereas a case can be made that it is a class problem, with women, as such, a subordinated class similar to that of chattel slavery in the earlier America. David Brion Davis made exactly that claim in a recent book of essays, Created in the Image of God. So a case can be made for Women’s Studies, but even so, it would have to be integrated into a larger historical picture and set of determinations.]

Of course what these particular feminists overlooked was the perception by many men that women had too much power as it was (including sexual power), a widespread belief motivating many of the Symbolist poets and other authors I had read, some of whom were misogynists. See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. Also https://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/. In my view, the key was the clinging mother, who not only demanded that she be idealized, but set impossibly high moral standards on her sons, sometimes inflicting double binds on her children. (As described throughout my book on Herman Melville and the source of his prison imagery; e.g. the conflict between truth and order, or local loyalties with concern for the faraway. One was supposed to reconcile the irreconcilable without fuss or choosing sides.)

There are things taken up by Naomi Wolf that every woman knows: that too much time is taken up with make-up and the losing battle with aging; that successful men are relatively free to dump their aging wives for younger models; that many men are disgusted by women’s bodies and functions, that women’s magazines are retrograde, and so on. What she does not harp upon is the lingering fear that many women have of treading on male turf, for instance, the study of political, diplomatic and military history, of city planning, architecture, economics or of all the sciences. But that too is changing.

To conclude: nothing in this blog should be construed to mean that I am not a feminist. Far from it. Our society is largely hypersexualized and dumbed down. I am simply unqualified to make grand statements about women from antiquity to the present, or even women from the 1960s onward. That would require a lifetime of close study and more critical tools than I have at hand. For more see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/18/history-as-trauma-2-rosebud-version/. Also the first segment of this two-part series, see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/14/history-as-trauma/.

June 8, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s love letter to the world

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a meditation upon Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s third book, NOMAD: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through The Clash of Civilizations (Free Press, 2010).  I was there during the late 60s-1970s feminist movement, both as a reporter and facilitator of women in the arts. To understand why Hirsi Ali is not the toast of that closely knit movement (though she should be), one must look at the evolution of the “second wave” feminists.

The leading lights were either primarily leftists, the children of leftists, or dissatisfied participants in the civil rights-antiwar movement that defined 1960s politics. In the late 1960s, certain movement “heavies” emerged, all male, and they were hogging the media’s attention. Women meanwhile, were used as traditional women always had been —as sexual objects, cheerleaders, and cooks. In this aspect, the antiwar and counter-culture hippie movements fused in the figure of Woman as Earth Mother.

Some of these young women weren’t pleased with their lack of access to fame or notoriety, and almost overnight came a flood of books about “the patriarchy” authored by Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer, to name a few. In the art world, Judy Chicago (née Gerowitz) became the most celebrated luminary.  The Feminist Art program at California Institute of the Arts, run by Judy and Miriam Schapiro, laid down the new law: women were defined by their vaginas, men by their phalluses: hence, women artists who painted circular forms were right on; glorification of the male organ was taboo, unless as an object of derision, or terror to the “white male supremacist.”

I myself, fascinated by these developments, put together a poetical montage/slide show of sex and violence in the work of female artists and photographers, historically important and/or new to the scene, presenting the slides accompanied by recitations from Simone de Beauvoir and other European writers. My provocation was widely shown around the country and generally appreciated, with one exception: When I gave the show at Judy Chicago’s class at the Women’s Building in downtown Los Angeles, the audience of student feminists under the tutelage of Judy were cold and unresponsive. When I invited comments, Sheila de Bretteville (then associated with Cal Arts, then the Women’s Building, and later Dean of the Design School at Yale), asked me if I was disappointed at the stone wall of disapproval that we both sensed. She lamented on my behalf that I had usually gotten “love” back from the audience for my efforts.

I quote my former buddy Sheila because it is hard to imagine that Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote her three books expecting love and appreciation from the world that had attempted to socialize her into the nightmarish world of Islam, and for some time had succeeded in that effort, until she gradually and painfully extricated herself through an epic journey. Nor do I expect the 60s-70s feminists to appreciate her current affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute; indeed she is the classical liberal enemy to the feminist army of leftists and social democratic super-statists, despite her firm adherence to the right of all women to protect and control their reproductive organs, not to speak of embracing their sexuality.

No, the 1960s feminists and their male allies now populate the humanities departments of the elite universities and their academic presses, having graduated from antiwar demonstrations and art shows to “postcolonial” literary theory, postmodernism, and the multiculturalism that Hirsi Ali so persuasively discredits in her work.  (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/, for an account of the transformation of an integrationist movement to a separatist authoritarian one that mirrored Leninist ideology.) But she does adhere to one practice of post60s feminism: the giving of personal testimony that awakens the conscience and informs the intellect of the reader. To accompany her on this autobiographical journey is to be transformed, partly through the revelations of graphic and shocking details that political scientists and other academics cannot know about, or will not discuss. It is simply life-changing to encounter this woman of fortitude and compelling insight into a Muslim “civilization” that is unremittingly backward, barbaric, and deeply threatening to the West, especially now with the deliberately Obama-inflicted weakness of the American superpower that has given her shelter (although with the need for bodyguards, so thoroughly have we been infiltrated).

But Hirsi Ali’s book is, from top to bottom, a love letter to all the world: love for the Enlightenment, for Reason, for the capacity of even the most backward of peoples, with our assistance, to throw off their hellish imaginations, and to join those of us lucky enough not to have consumed a brain-deadening culture of terror from infancy on. And she understands what probably every woman of accomplishment has experienced: the importance of a father’s example (no matter how idealized) to the aspirations of the daughters, struggling against the odds to declare and embody their independence and unique value. In Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we have in our midst a woman for the ages.

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